Posts Tagged ‘Academia’

En/Countering Academic/Activist Tensions

Posted: November 16, 2010 by sayburgin in Academia, Activism
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In September, I was able to attend the Critical Whiteness Studies Symposium put on by the University of Iowa’s Project on Rhetoric of Inquiry. True to its word, the Symposium engaged a number of key questions surrounding the ‘social, cultural and historical production of whiteness’. Historians, social and political scientists, and scholars of literature, rhetoric, and gender and queer studies converged in Iowa City to raise, and sometimes answer questions about the shifting meanings of whiteness in the United States, particularly in the current so-called ‘post-racial’ era of the Obama presidency.

Examples of the conference’s excellence are plenty. A few personal favorites:
– Danielle Olden’s paper on the claims to whiteness made by Mexican American women of the Hispano Americano Women’s Club of Lincoln/Laramie, Wyoming, at mid-century.
– Michael Litwick’s presentation on the social construction of queer white flexibility as juxtaposed with queer black rigidity.
– Becky Thompson’s keynote entitled ‘Pedagogies of Tenderness’ – on the need to teach in a way that does not further disconnect students’ minds from their bodies.
– Kimberlee Pérez and Dustin Goltz’s performance piece highlighting the ‘politics of intimacy’ in queer, cross-race alliances.

Indeed, the Symposium interrogated racial meanings and productions in a number of innovative and creative ways. For me, though, presentations and discussions that centered on racial justice and academia were the most powerful, particularly a panel discussion called ‘Negotiating Shifting Terrains of Whiteness: Strategies for Building Alliances and Trans/forming Communities’. Led by a multiracial, feminist coalition of activist/academics – Sheena Malhotra, California State University; Francesa Royster, Ann Russo, Laila Farah, and Sheena Malhotra, all of DePaul University – this panel raised crucial questions and offered some advice around en/countering whiteness within universities.

Each discussant spoke of her personal struggles to negotiate the white supremacist culture that permeates the academy. For instance, one discussant pointed out that, often, we academics employ the tools of white supremacy in order to negotiate whiteness within our institutions, tools such as self-righteousness and perfectionism. (As the discussant pointed out, Tema Okun has analyzed the connections between these attributes and white supremacy.) Another discussant shared her attempts, within her administrative roles, to be aware of when she slips from a position of collaboration to one of collusion – when for instance, her actions are perpetuating the exclusion of students or faculty of colour. Each discussant spoke powerfully to the perpetual and differing negotiations (and re-negotiations) that academics face as they attempt to create more racially just university systems.

Perhaps this particular workshop resonated so deeply with me because of conversations I’d had recently at the ‘New Territories in Critical Whiteness Studies’ Postgraduate Conference in August at the University of Leeds. There, many of us found ourselves raising questions about the connections between the academic world and social justice struggles that take place largely outside of scholarly contexts: shouldn’t critical race learners also be racial justice actors? How do we stay involved in antiracism struggles even as we study them? How do we create scholarship that serves these struggles? Is it possible to ensure that, in our engagement with critical whiteness theory, we do not re-center whiteness?

I thought at first that these concerns might be peculiar to postgraduates. At the ‘New Territories’ conference, a number of us had shared stories about our involvement in various antiracism causes: Palestinian solidarity groups, counter-English Defence League organizing, involvement in Love Music Hate Racism, etc. I knew I was anxious, thinking about how I would best be able to maintain my commitments to my own activist involvements in the midst of increasing academic-related responsibilities, particularly those that would bear on my ability to land a job after graduate school. Pressures related to gaining employable skills and credentials had been building (and continue to do so) in an increasingly pessimistic atmosphere that carries little hope for postgraduates seeking academic employment in years to come. Strapped for time and energy, I’ve often felt pressure (and was advised by other, more advanced postgraduates) to decrease my commitments to Palestine solidarity efforts in Leeds in order to lend more time for activities that would help me get employed.

And I certainly haven’t been the only postgraduate to feel these pressures. Aside from those that I met at the ‘New Territories’ conference, I encountered a number of others, including Chris Dixon and Alexis Shotwell. While I haven’t actually met these two individuals, I ran across a paper they wrote.  One day as I was sitting in an archive, surrounded by a fascinating collection of women’s liberationists’ letters, I pondered why I had chosen the full-time academic life to the full-time women’s liberationist one. Finally, I just began Googling ‘radical academics’ or something like that. Up popped Dixon and Shotwell’s online article, ‘Leveraging the Academy’. They offered a new take, a less despairing, woe-is-me angle:

Many grad students are uniquely situated …we come to grad school with movement backgrounds and activist commitments or develop political commitments through grad school. We should be nurturing and drawing on these experiences and commitments… These things not only help to leverage the academy for changing the world, but can also help combat some of the soul-destroying features of academe… Indeed, it is precisely this work that in itself changes the grad school experience from something like boot camp to something meaningful and politically useful.

Hopeful, pragmatic, and useful, this article helped me feel as though I could navigate my postgraduate studies without overly compromising my activist commitments. My fellow critical whiteness studies postgraduates and myself could indeed ‘help to leverage the academy’ for racial justice.

Still, upon reading ‘Leveraging the Academy’, I felt as though these anxieties surrounding activism, justice, power/politics, and the academy were unique to or pronounced amongst postgraduate researchers, and I wasn’t sure if things changed after graduate school, if the responsibilities as an academic were piled so high I would lose sight of all non-academic, antiracism and feminist activities.

What was, however, clear to me from the presentations I attended at the Symposium in Iowa (illustrated most explicitly in the ‘Building Alliances’ panel) is that established critical race/whiteness scholars also negotiate tensions between academic and activist worlds; like us, their protégés, they often seek to bridge these seemingly distinct worlds and make their scholarship ‘count’ for something in the realm of racial justice. And though I think that many of us engaged in critical whiteness studies – whether postgraduate or tenured, east or west of the Atlantic, Midwestern or Tyke – will continue to grapple with these tensions, after having been to the University of Iowa’s CWS Symposium, I at least feel now as though, as an established academic, if I lose sight of the feminist/racial justice struggles that are so important to me, it will not be because they have no place in the academy. Rather, it will be because I have not confronted the necessity of these struggles to the creation of a more just and inclusive academy.